The Trump Administration made a significant move Wednesday night in the national debate regarding transgender students’ rights by withdrawing previously issued guidance from the United States Department of Education (“DOE”) and Department of Justice (“DOJ”) on the topic. The prior guidance from the DOE and DOJ, which was issued by the Obama administration in May 2016 (“May guidance”), interpreted Title IX as requiring treatment of students in a manner consistent with their gender identity. The May guidance provided examples of policies and practices to support transgender students, such as utilizing the name the student has selected, requiring access to restrooms, locker rooms, and overnight accommodations for school trips in accordance with the gender with which the student identifies.
Amidst significant backlash, numerous states sought to invalidate the May guidance through a federal lawsuit in Texas v. United States. The Trump Administration’s Dear Colleague letter which rescinded the May guidance referenced that lawsuit and further stated that the May guidance lacked a formal public vetting process, extensive legal analysis, and an explanation of how the position is consistent with Title IX language. The Trump Administration’s letter also stated that there are conflicting national court decisions and further noted the role States and local school districts should play in educational policy development.
While the May 2016 guidance has been rescinded in favor of State control over the issue, the Trump administration noted that transgender students should be protected from discrimination, bullying and harassment. In a press release, the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos emphasized a federal mandate and moral obligation to protect all students and ensure a safe and trusted environment, in which to learn and thrive.
This rescission of the May 2016 guidance comes just weeks before the United States Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in Gloucester County School Board v. GG. The Court was set to review whether deference should extend to the DOE’s prior interpretation of Title IX in relation to gender identity. With this new development, the Supreme Court must choose whether or not it will address these questions now.
Finally, while the DOE and DOJ’s prior position has been rescinded by the Trump Administration, the recent decision of the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Board of Education of Highland Local School District v. United States Department of Education, et al. remains in effect at the moment. The Highland Court affirmed the decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, which found that a transgender student should be allowed access to the restroom of the gender with which the student identified and should also be called by the pronoun of the gender with which the student identified. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is binding on public school districts in Ohio, absent a contrary ruling from the United States Supreme Court. Thus, school districts should continue to watch for further developments and consult with legal counsel as issues arise.